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[SANET-MG] food miles and sustainability
http://www.i-sis.org.uk/FMAS.phpISIS Press Release 21/09/05
Food Miles and Sustainability
What’s behind the statistics and what should be done? Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and
Sources for this article are posted on ISIS members website. Details here
Food miles an indicator of sustainability
Food transported across the world burns up a lot of fossil fuel and
contributes to global warming. “Food miles” - the total distance in
miles the food item is transported from field to plate - has become
accepted as a convenient indicator of sustainability; and has led to a
general movement towards local production and local consumption in order
to minimize them. This raises fundamental questions about the
sustainability of the globalised food trade and the increasing
concentration of the food supply chain and distribution in the hands of
fewer and fewer transnational corporations.
UK’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has
commissioned a report to look into The Validity of Food Miles as an
Indicator of Sustainable Development, which was published in July 2005.
The company commissioned to do the report was AEA Technology, formerly
part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and now a private
sector company that was floated on the London stock exchange in 1996.
Given the narrow remit of the report, it nevertheless came up with some
damning evidence against the dominant food system. The question is
whether the political will is there to move forward from the discredited
Causes for the increase of food miles correctly identified
The report correctly identified the five most striking changes in the UK
food production and supply chain in the last fifty years that have
greatly increased food transport.
Globalisation of the food industry with increased imports and exports
and ever wider sourcing of food within the UK and abroad
Concentration of the food supply base into fewer, larger suppliers,
partly to meet demand for bulk year-round supplies of uniform produce
Major changes in delivery patterns with most goods now routed through
supermarket regional distribution centres using larger HGVs (heavy goods
Centralised and concentrated sales in supermarkets where a weekly shop
by car has replaced frequent pedestrian shop visits
These trends all add to food miles. Since 1978, the annual amount of
food moved by HGVs in the UK has increased by 23 percent with the
average distance for each trip also up by 50 percent.
The report stated, “The rise in food miles has led to increases in the
environmental, social and economic burdens associated with transport.
These include carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution, congestion,
accidents and noise. There is a clear cause and effect relationship for
food miles for these burdens – and in general higher levels of vehicle
activity lead to larger impacts.”
It was against this background that DEFRA commissioned the study.
Scope of the report limited
The study was meant to:
Compile a food miles dataset covering the supply chain from farmer (both
in the UK and abroad) to the consumer in 1992, 1997 and 2002.
Assess the main trends leading to the increase in food miles at home and
Identify and quantify the environmental, economic and social impacts of
Develop a set of indicators which relate food miles to their main
impacts on sustainability
These tasks are narrowly based and treat transport in isolation from the
rest of the food cycle. The energy-intensive globalised industrial model
that is accepted as given, and indeed actively promoted by the
government and the food and drinks industry, inevitably entails a
massive food transport system. A more holistic and useful remit for the
study would have been one that looked at the energy demands of the whole
industrial farming and food model, including its specialized transport
needs against those of a localised organic, energy conscious model that
prioritises energy conservation and minimizes waste (see “Sustainable
Food Systems for Sustainable Development” SiS27). This would have
sharpened the focus on the costs/benefits of the two food strategies and
allowed the government to choose more rationally the one that is in the
interests of the people and the environment that it currently only pays
lip service to.
The study finds, unsurprisingly, that a single indicator based on total
food miles is inadequate. That’s because some miles such as air miles
cost more in energy and carbon dioxide emissions; and others, such as
HGV miles, cost more in terms of infrastructure damage. So a “suite of
indicators” is suggested. Nevertheless, the study does admit that “Food
transport has significant and growing impacts”, and goes to some lengths
to document these.
Food transport has significant and growing impacts
Food transport accounted for an estimated 30 billion vehicle kilometres
in 2002 of which 82 percent were in the UK; it accounted for 25 percent
of all HGV kilometres in the UK and produced 19 million tonnes of carbon
dioxide, of which 10 million tonnes were emitted in the UK; almost all
from road transport. This represented 1.8 percent of the total annual UK
CO2 emissions, and 8.7 percent of the total emissions of the UK road sector.
Transport of food by air had the highest CO2 emissions per tonne, and is
the fastest growing mode. Although air freight of food accounts for only
1 percent of food tonne kilometres and 0.1 percent of vehicle
kilometres, it produces 11 percent of the food transport CO2 equivalent
The direct social, environmental, and economic costs of food transport
are estimated at over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by
congestion. The social cost of congestion is estimated at £5 billion.
Accidents lead to social costs of £2 billion per year, and greenhouse
gas emissions, air pollution, noise and infrastructure cost a further £2
The report is in no doubt that “The total costs are very significant
compared with the gross value of the agricultural sector of £6.4
billion, and the food and drink manufacturing sector of £19.8 billion.”
In other words, the £26.2 billion made by agriculture and the food and
drink industry involve externalizing £9 billion (34 percent) of the
costs, largely to the taxpayer. This is an underestimate, as the report
stressed that impacts due to air transport have not been included.
These statistics, dire as they are, only hint at the scale of the real
problem both at home and abroad, where identical produce is swapped
across Europe and cash crops are flown in from the Third World for the
furtherance of ‘free trade’ promoted by the World Trade Organization and
other free trade agreements.
The report should have sounded a warning for the urgent need to decrease
these burdens on our environment and society at source. National and
international policies that aim to encourage a comprehensive shift to
low input, organic local production and local consumption, and real
investments into renewable energies in place of fossil fuels are among
the most important options for making our food system sustainable. This
would substantially reduce CO2 emissions at a stroke, as well as wipe
out the enormous externalized costs of food transport over long distances.
Recommendations for further work
The report ends with “Recommendations for further work”, the last of
which was on policy, pointing out that the “impacts of any changes in
food sourcing or food transport depend to a large extent on the policy
framework, and on the response of consumers, producers and industry to
those policies.” It suggests a study of potential policies to include:
Sourcing food more locally where appropriate e.g. consumer awareness,
public procurement, support for local food initiatives, strengthening UK
Reducing car food shopping e.g. home delivery, support for local and
in-town shops, provision of safe cycle and pedestrian access
Reducing transport impacts e.g. cleaner vehicles, improved logistics,
Internalising the social costs of transport to reflect the costs to
society of pollution, congestion, accidents, noise and so on, in the
prices paid by transport users
Improving the wider sustainability of the food chain e.g. ethical
trading, improved energy efficiency in the local food sector
This is a very partial list of useful policies that essentially leaves
the existing food system untouched.
Reports commissioned by the UK government from private consultants cost
the taxpayers £1 billion annually. They cannot be value for money if all
they do is entrench governments in the very policies that have created
the problems identified.
It is clear, from the causes of increased food transport identified at
the beginning of the report, that policies are needed to minimize food
import/export, to promote instead, national/regional food-sufficiency,
and to reverse the concentration of food supply chains in favour of
local shops and cooperatives run directly by farmers and consumers. In
addition, there should be government subsidies and incentives for
reducing carbon dioxide emissions on farms, and for farms and local
communities to become energy self-sufficient in low or zero-emission
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